Have you ever been jolted awake at 2 AM by the sound of heavy footsteps from the apartment below? Or been distracted from reading a book by the endless pacing of your downstairs neighbor?
If you live in an apartment or multi-family home, chances are you’ve experienced the frustration of hearing noises from your downstairs neighbors.
So why do you hear your downstairs neighbor walking? It’s because of the following reasons:
- Thin floors and ceilings between units
- Hard flooring materials that amplify noise
- Stomping and heavy footsteps
- High foot traffic areas in downstairs units
- Hard-soled shoes
- Noise during quiet times
- Floor plans that align bedrooms above living spaces
- Lack of proper insulation between floors
I’m going to break down these reasons why we can hear so much activity in the units below ours.
1. Thin floors and ceilings
One major contributor to the sounds of your downstairs neighbor’s footsteps and other noises permeating your unit is insufficient insulation or thin dividing materials between floors and ceilings of apartments.
Many multi-family buildings have floor/ceiling assemblies comprising layers of subfloor, floor joists, and subceiling materials that are much less thick and insulating than a standard wall. This allows noise to transmit more easily between floors.
Footsteps and other impact noises can vibrate through the flooring with little resistance if soundproofing is lacking. While you may have plush carpeting in your unit, your downstairs neighbor likely has plywood subflooring covered by a thin layer of concrete.
Not exactly sound-absorbing!
2. Hard flooring materials
Now let’s talk about how the type of flooring your neighbor has can make a big difference in the noise you hear upstairs. Hard surface flooring materials like stone, tile, and wood transmit noise much more than soft surfaces like carpeting.
The hard reflective properties of these materials allow noises like footsteps to reverberate rather than get absorbed.
So if your downstairs neighbor recently installed beautiful new hardwood floors or tile in their condo, chances are you’ve noticed an increase in noises from below you. The echoes of their footsteps on hard floors definitely don’t provide the same sound dampening as wall-to-wall carpet.
Even laminate flooring, which uses synthesized materials atop a foam backing, transmits more sound than carpet. The hollow spaces between the laminate and subfloor can amplify noises through your ceilings.
Imagine someone stomping around in hard-soled shoes on a hard surface below you. You’ll hear every step!
3. Stomping and heavy footsteps
Loud, stomping footsteps from your downstairs neighbor can easily transmit noise to your unit upstairs.
While normal walking or careful footsteps from below may go unnoticed, heavy pacing, running, or stomping across hard flooring is very audible in the unit above.
Some downstairs neighbors may not realize how much their heavy footfalls transmit or could be intentionally stomping. Kids running around the unit below is also a frequent source of heavy-impact noises. Hard-soled shoes tend to amplify stomping noises even more.
If you can hear clear thuds and reverberations from footsteps below, your downstairs neighbor may need to be more conscious of their heavy footsteps, which disturbingly transmit upstairs. A friendly reminder may help, but some neighbors may resist changing their ways.
4. High foot traffic areas
Certain rooms or areas in a downstairs unit where occupants tend to walk frequently will transmit more noise to the unit above. High foot traffic areas like hallways, foyers, kitchens, and staircases are prone to producing impact noises from footsteps that carry upwards.
Meanwhile, bedrooms, closets, and other less-used rooms below your unit will unlikely disturb your peace as much.
If your bedroom happens to be situated above your neighbor’s kitchen, hallway, or entryway, where they walk constantly, you’ll certainly hear more of their activity. There’s not much you can do if your floor plan situates you above their high-traffic areas.
Other than asking them to remove their shoes and tiptoe when passing through, you’ll probably have to try to cope with the footsteps from below or consider moving to a top-floor unit in the future.
Let’s talk about how footwear choices can influence the amount of noise transmitted from a downstairs unit. Bare feet or socks dampen noises from footsteps significantly compared to hard-soled shoes.
Shoes, especially dress shoes, boots, and those with thin hard soles, will amplify noises like stomping many times over. Just picture your neighbor pacing around below in boots on a wood floor versus socks on the carpet – big difference!
Asking a downstairs neighbor to be mindful of noisy shoes may help reduce the impact noise you hear above. But some may be unwilling to give up their footwear choices.
One option is to provide them with soft slippers to wear indoors as an alternative to their usual shoes.
However, not everyone will be open to changing their footwear habits. Ultimately, there is only so much you can do about a neighbor’s choice of shoes unless they cooperate.
6. Time of day
The time of day can also influence the degree to which noises are audible from downstairs units.
During daytime hours, when there is more ambient noise from outside, footsteps and other impacts may be drowned out or go unnoticed. However, when things are generally quieter late at night, even subtle noises from below are more distinct and audible upstairs.
Early morning hours are another time when footsteps can clearly transmit upstairs. If your neighbor gets up at 6 AM and starts moving around to get ready for work, you’ll probably hear the commotion in your bedroom above at an hour when you want peace.
Asking them to try to walk softly in the early morning is reasonable, but changing someone’s habits is difficult.
I’ll never forget being woken up at 5 AM on Saturday mornings by the pitter-patter of my neighbor’s toddler running laps around their living room below me. That certainly ruined my chance to sleep in!
So if your bedroom is above a family’s playroom, be prepared for noisy mornings.
7. Floor plan
The way upstairs and downstairs units are situated relative to one another can determine which noises transmit the most. Bedrooms or other quiet spaces located directly above heavily used rooms in the unit below will inevitably transmit more noise.
For example, if your bedroom is above their living room, kitchen, or family room, you’ll hear much more of their TV, conversations, footsteps, etc.
Meanwhile, a bedroom above their bathroom or laundry room will be quieter.
Take some time to analyze the floor plan of the units in your building. Try to figure out what rooms stack directly above and below each other.
This can explain why certain noises are more audible than others from downstairs. There may also be options to rearrange your furniture to minimize impacts – like moving your bed to the opposite side of the room, further from the neighbor’s noise source.
8. Insulation between units
The amount of insulation and soundproofing between upstairs and downstairs units plays a significant role in noise transmission.
Older buildings often have little or no insulation built into the floor/ceiling assembly between units. This allows noises like footsteps to travel through easily with minimal sound dampening.
Newer buildings are generally constructed with modern soundproofing standards in mind. Mass-loaded vinyl, insulating foams, acoustical caulking, and other soundproofing materials for apartments are installed between floors to absorb noise and vibrations.
Noise reduction in apartments can be achieved by upgrading insulation and soundproofing between floors in older buildings, but it’s very costly and disruptive.
9. Ceiling pipes
An often overlooked contributor to noise transmission from downstairs neighbors is pipes running through the ceiling.
Plumbing, drain, electrical conduits, and vent pipes penetrating floors and ceilings can inadvertently carry and amplify sounds between units. This duct noise transmission occurs through the “pipe effect” phenomenon, where pipes act as a conduit for sound waves to travel along with reverberation.
Footsteps and other impact vibrations can transfer into ceiling pipes and travel laterally to other areas, emerging as audible noises upstairs. Plastic PVC pipes tend to transmit more noise than cast iron or copper.
An insulating wrap can be installed around noisy pipes to dampen the sound transmission. But this requires access to the pipes from below, which your neighbor may resist.
10. Building age and quality
The age and quality of construction are big determinants of noise issues between upstairs and downstairs units. Like today’s standards, older buildings were rarely designed with stringent soundproofing in mind.
Materials, insulation, and design practices decades ago were focused on basic function rather than noise transmission. Outdated building codes also allowed lesser assemblies between floors.
These days, newer multi-family buildings are required to employ construction methods that limit noise transfer, such as floating floors, staggered wall studs, acoustical sealants, and insulation.
If you are moving into an older building with known downstairs neighbor noise complaints, be prepared for headaches. Seek out newer buildings advertised as having noise-reducing features if sleep is a priority.
11. Building codes and standards
Building codes and regulations related to sound transmission have evolved, resulting in large differences in noise insulation and apartment noise transmission between old and new constructions.
Buildings constructed under outdated codes often have little separating floor/ceiling assemblies, allowing noise to travel between units freely.
Modern building standards include stringent acoustical testing requirements to ensure minimum sound transmission ratings are met between dwellings. Materials, designs, and construction methods have all improved to reduce noise transfer. This includes upgrades like:
- Thicker subfloors and floating floors
- Staggered wall studs
- Resilient metal channels
- Insulation like rock wool
- Sound-blocking composites and mats
While retrofitting older buildings is possible, it is extremely costly and time-consuming. Landlords may claim upgrades are prohibitive, leaving tenants stuck with noisy situations.
If you are sensitive to noise, always check when the building was constructed and what standards it was built under. Opt for newer buildings rated on noise insulation performance, as old ones are unlikely to change.
Living in multi-family housing comes with the reality of hearing your neighbors through floors and ceilings. But excessive noise transmission can become an annoying and stressful problem. As we’ve discussed, many factors contribute to noises like footsteps transmitting from downstairs units.
While asking neighbors to be more conscious about stomping and footwear can help, the physical construction of the building is the major determinant. Older, poorly insulated buildings with minimal noise dampening allow loud footsteps and other impacts to permeate throughout.
In many cases, we must accept some degree of footsteps and noise as part of apartment living. Just try your best to minimize it through careful floor plan selection and polite conversations with downstairs neighbors.
The rest may require earplugs!